This year South Africans celebrate the 20-year anniversary of our democratic parliament. With national and provincial elections approaching, political parties are finalising the lists of candidates selected to represent South Africans. It is an opportune moment to reflect on the efficacy of public representation and how civil society can assist in enhancing it.

Much has been written about the benefits and shortcomings of the system of proportional representation (PR) on the basis of which members of parliament (MPs) and the provincial legislatures (MPLs) are elected. Instead of voters directly choosing who will represent them, parties determine who will land seats. Voters vote for parties; the number of seats available for a party’s candidates depends on the number of votes that a party garners.

The primary reason for using the PR system is its inclusive character. It ensures that a wide range of political positions is reflected in parliament. Drawing as many political actors as possible into representative politics is regarded as a safety valve in a society as historically fractured as South Africa.

However, an accountability deficit mars the system as voters cannot directly call on individual public representatives on the basis that their votes put them there. The perception of elected representatives being unaccountable, or at least only answerable to party leaderships, erodes the credibility of the political system and of parliament as an institution.

This could explain the declining rate of voter participation. While registered voters’ turnout seems healthy at 77% in 2009, the picture changes when all eligible voters are taken into account. In the past two elections, respectively, 42% and 40% of voting-age South Africans did not bother to vote, as opposed to only 14% in 1994. It suggests that South African voters have become disillusioned with political parties. Withdrawing from voting when most people only gained the right two decades ago does not augur well for the legitimacy of the political system.

Another way to look at the declining voting rate is that voters are discerning, which accords with the impression that South Africans are generally politically attuned. The oft-regurgitated claim that South African elections are “identity”-driven, in which identity serves as a code word for race, draws on arguments by conservative pundits that reduce the country’s elections to mere “racial censuses”. In contrast, analysis by political scientist Dr Collette Schulz-Herzenberg shows a “floating vote” of non-partisan voters of between a third and half of the electorate — much of them black voters. Therefore, support for parties is not “automatic” due to some pre-programmed racial affiliation.

The drop in voters’ participation challenges political parties to devise policies that speak more effectively to people’s actual lives. It also means that parliament has to safeguard its legitimacy by ensuring transparency and public accessibility. To address the most obvious gap created by the PR system, MPs have been assigned to constituency offices, where they are supposed to be stationed on “constituency days”, as marked on the parliamentary calendar. At least 25% of an MP’s working life is constituency work but it is unmonitored. It is questionable to what extent these offices are indeed operational.

To its credit, parliament has expanded the potential for accountability through the adoption of a legislative sector oversight model in 2012 and the establishment of parliamentary democracy offices. These offices are particularly geared towards making parliament more accessible in far-flung areas, putting people who “are ordinarily outside national debates” in touch with parliament. Three offices have been piloted.

Another development is the adoption of the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act of 2009. This law empowers parliamentary committees to intervene when government departments use financial resources ineffectively and fail to deliver. It allows for hearings where the public can input on departmental budgets, from which review reports are developed that the finance minister is obliged to respond to. This process expands parliament’s powers but simultaneously adds another layer of complexity to its work.

The challenge, which affects accountability, is to break through the opacity of parliamentary processes. This is not only parliament’s task but also places demands on civil society organisations (CSOs), which hold expertise and should and do provide support to MPs.

CSOs should facilitate public participation in legislative and oversight processes, through providing accessible information on both the intent and content of laws and how to access parliament and MPs. Technology can help greatly. The latest CSO initiative is the People’s Assembly website, which uses technology to provide critical information in an easily understandable format to members of the public.

One of the features is the “Rep Locator”, where you can find the constituency offices of your MP or MPL and give feedback about the office closest to you. It will also provide information on MPs or MPLs, such as financial disclosures, written questions they have asked, attendance record, speeches and comments made in meetings. The People’s Assembly is an interactive hub where CSOs can share their work on parliament. With the expansion of smart phone usage, the website will be useful not only to those with computers.

The People’s Assembly aims to support parliament in its work through facilitating public participation. This, it is hoped, will contribute to the reduction in the accountability deficit and therefore boost the credibility of our young democratic system.

This article, which first appeared in the Independent Newspapers’ dailies, was made possible by the People’s Assembly, which launched on February 13 at



Christi van der Westhuizen

Dr Christi van der Westhuizen is an award-winning political columnist and the author of the book Working Democracy: Perspectives on South Africa's Parliament at 20 Years, available for download...

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